Category: Games

#chessdrama splat

Chess.com, which has alleged many more instances of on-line cheating, is the fat lady that will sing (or not).  It strikes me as highly unlikely that they simply would have made up the existence of their further charges, especially since they claim to have produced a report and sent it to Niemann.  (You don’t have to think the report is correct, but I am betting it exists.)  In the meantime, chess.com did the right thing by sending their report to Niemann first, as they claim, rather than releasing it to the general public.  This way Niemann has a chance to rebut or defuse the allegations.

Note that Niemann, for all of his various denials, has not, to the best of my knowledge, denied that the chess.com report exists.  Nor do I see any direct evidence or statement that he will be providing a rebuttal.

In the meantime, I don’t think Carlsen is obliged to produce his own report.  I don’t understand why so many in the chess world or on Twitter are urging him to do this.  There may be libel issues in play as well, but arguably he is waiting for the chess.com report to come out, in addition to any possible rebuttal or lack thereof.  That is the information channel already in play, so to speak.

If a player has cheated repeatedly in on-line chess, should we let that same player participate in top-tier over-the-board tournaments?  To me the answer is an obvious no, and presumably Carlsen agrees.  Even if over-the-board cheating is very difficult or impossible to pull off, major distractions are created by the player’s history.  Or that same player might prove untrustworthy in other regards.

So the key elements here are the chess.com report and any possible Niemann rebuttal.  I am waiting for those.  Magnus is patient, and I am patient too.  The current state of imperfect information will not last forever.

The Kremlin cuts off the gas

Russia’s gas supplies to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline will not resume in full until the “collective west” lifts sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has said.

Here is more from the FT.  This seems to me a turning point of sorts.  Remember the old chess saying: “The threat is stronger than the execution”?  Well, this is the execution!

Europe bears the full burden today, and rather soon in the winter to come.  Over time, however, Europe will adjust and the Russian position and threat value will weaken each period.

It would make sense as a strategy if Russia were about to start negotiating for peace, but that is not my prediction.

It also would make sense if Russia thinks Europe is at the very end of its rope, and now will crack.  That also does not seem correct for me.

Or maybe Russia can’t think of anything else to do, and so they do this rather than nothing.  That would signal the Russian position is weaker than it looks.  Maybe.

In some accounts, the Kremlin has left itself a partial out.  Still, from the point of view of public opinion, very few are aware of this out.  So the Kremlin may have shot its negotiating wad.

Which means…?  How do we model this…?

Are chess players worse when playing remote?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional (offline) chess tournaments were prohibited and instead held online. We exploit this unique setting to assess the impact of remote work policies on the cognitive performance of individuals. Using the artificial intelligence embodied in a powerful chess engine to assess the quality of chess moves and associated errors, we find a statistically and economically significant decrease in performance when an individual competes remotely versus offline in a face-to-face setting. The effect size decreases over time, suggesting an adaptation to the new remote setting.

That is from a new Economic Journal piece by Steffen Künn, Christian Seel, and Dainis Zegners.  I wonder if similar results might hold for Work from a Distance?

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

The robot chess culture that is Russian

According to the organizers of the tournament in the Russian capital, it was an “accidental” attack by the robot. A seven-year-old boy named Christopher, who, by the way, according to them, is among the top 30 chess players in Moscow under the age of nine, moved a piece on the chessboard earlier than he should, which led to the non-standard behavior of the robot.

The AI ​​robotic arm grabbed the young player’s index finger and squeezed his finger firmly. The people around the boy immediately rushed to help, but did not prevent the consequences in the form of a broken finger.

…We have nothing to do with the robot,” commented Moscow Chess Federation President Sergey Lazarev.

Here is the full story, via Austin Vernon.

My excellent Conversation with Matthew Ball

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Ball joined Tyler to discuss the eventual widespan transition of the population to the metaverse, the exciting implications of this interconnected network of 3D worlds for education, how the metaverse will improve dating and its impacts on sex, the happiness and career satisfaction of professional gamers, his predictions for Tyler’s most frequent uses of the metaverse, his favorite type of entrepreneur, why he has thousands of tabs open on his computer at any given moment, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As I read your book, The Metaverse, which again, I’ll recommend highly, I have the impression you’re pretty optimistic about interoperability within the metaverse and an ultimate lack of market power. Now, if I look around the internet — I mean, most obviously, the Apple Store but also a lot of gaming platforms — you see 30 percent fees, or something in that neighborhood, all over the place. Will the metaverse have the equivalent of a 30 percent fee? Or is it a truly competitive market where everything gets competed down to marginal cost?

BALL: I think neither/nor. I wouldn’t say that market power diffuses. There’s currently this ethos, especially in the Web3 community, that decentralization needs to win and that decentralization can win.

It’s a question of where on the spectrum are we? The early internet was obviously held back by heavy decentralization. This is one of the reasons why AOL was, for so many people, the primary onboarding experience. It was easy, cohesive, visual, vertically integrated down to the software, the browser experience, and so forth. But we believe that the last 15 years has been too centralized.

At the end of the day, no matter how decentralized the underlying protocols of the metaverse are, no matter how popular blockchains are, there are multiple forms of centralization. Habit is powerful. Brand is powerful — the associated trust, intellectual property, the fundamental feedback loops of revenue and scale that drive better product investment for more engineers.

So I struggle to imagine the future isn’t some form of today, a handful of varyingly horizontal-vertical software and hardware-based platforms that have disproportionate share and even more influence. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be as powerful as today.

The 30 percent fee is definitely going to come by the wayside. We see this in the EU, whose legislation dropped yesterday. I have absolute certainty that that is going to go away. The question is the timeline. A lawyer joked yesterday, Apple is going to fight the EU until the heat death of the universe, and that’s probably likely. But Apple will find other ways to control and extract, as is their profit motive.

COWEN: Where is the most likely place for that partial market power or centralization to show up? Is it in the IP rights, in the payment system, the hardware provider, a cross-platform engine, somewhere else? What’s the most likely choke point?

BALL: There seem to be two different answers to that. Number one is software distribution. This is your classic discovery and distribution of virtual experiences. Steam does that. Roblox does that. Google does that, frankly, the search engine. That gateway to virtual experiences typically affords you the opportunity to be the dominant identity system, the dominant payment system, and so on and so forth.

The other option is hardware. We can think of the metaverse as a persistent network of experiences, but as with the internet, it may exist literally and in abstraction, but you can only access it through a device. Those device operators have an ever-growing network of APIs, experiences, technologies, technical requirements, and controls through which they can shape it.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

AlphaZero Ideas

That is a new and exciting paper from Julio González-Díaz and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, here is the abstract:

Can artificial intelligence (AI) uncover new ideas? As machines are learning fast and becoming increasingly intelligent, can AI not only automate the production function of goods and services, but also of ideas? Economic growth arises from people creating ideas, and thus an affirmative answer to these questions may have drastic implications for a host of important issues. Yet, to date, there is no empirical evidence showing that AI can in fact generate tabula rasa ideas that improve human understanding. Using as an exogenous shock the introduction of AlphaZero, we provide the first causal evidence of the impact of unsupervised AI on the production function of ideas. Specifically, AlphaZero is considered a milestone of scientific progress in AI research. This program rediscovered ideas known in centuries of human chess, and created new ideas as well. We study world experts at the frontier of knowledge and find that at least the player with the highest classical rating in the history of chess learned and adopted new ideas uncovered by AlphaZero. Other players may have also done the same. We contend that obtaining evidence of the impact of AI on the production function of ideas is a necessary first step to think about AI’s impact on the innovation and research processes that drive the advancement of knowledge and economic growth.

The main new ideas I have seen come from AlphaZero are the following:

1. Pushing the h pawn is often better than you thought! (emphasized by the authors)

2. Said pawn can be worth more on h6 (h3), as an aggressive weapon, than you might have thought.

3. Qa1 (a8) is occasionally a better move than it looks.

4. The chess openings that were preferred in the early 20th century, such as the Queen’s Gambit, are in fact pretty lindy and pretty good.  You can debate whether that is a “new” idea, but it is a meaningful revision of sorts.  (Of course plenty of earlier patzers had some fondness for #1-3, one might add, though perhaps not for the right reasons.)

So that is something.  But I think in terms of a percentage of the total improvement in play, it is quite small.  “Finding more good players through the internet” would come in first by a long mile.  “Giving more players more time on convenient services such as chess.com” likely would be next.  Even “just having good players improve their endgame play using basic study and standard chess engines” would be much larger than these AlphaZero effects.  “More top players copying the physical training regimen of Magnus” would be more significant as well.

I am also skeptical of the claim that very much of Carlsen’s 2019 improvement (he didn’t lose a game that year) came from AlphaZero.  He has lost some games since then!  And it is not as if all of his subsequent opponents are zapping him with surprise “Qa1” moves.  I see AlphaZero as a series of innovative but ultimately modest advances that have been incorporated by some of the top players with barely noticeable overall gains in move quality.

I am not an AI skeptic, and furthermore I see special value per se in “advancing the frontier,” even when various infra-marginal gains (“swim more!”) are more significant in quantitative terms.  Still, my estimate of the chess innovative advances from AlphaZero are more modest than what this paper would seem to suggest.

New Service Sector Jobs for Economists

At Wizards of the Coast, we connect people around the world through play and imagination. From our genre defining games like Magic: The Gathering® and Dungeons & Dragons® to our growing multiverse, we continue to innovate and build new ways to foster friendship and connection. That’s where you come in!

Magic: The Gathering is a card game played and collected across the globe, with a wide-ranging assortment of products designed to engage a wide range of ways people enjoy playing Magic. As a Sr. Design Economist, you will help us better understand how Magic is played and purchased to help us make better, faster strategic decisions.

What You’ll Do:

  • Learn from the Past: Study the data and trends to discover insights, new perspectives, and opportunities to improve how we serve different types of customers and markets.
  • Live in the Moment: Track and report on sales, identify market channels that are over/underperforming, and refine our projections and strategies in real time.
  • Predict the Future: Project product sales to inform print runs and market allocation for products we have made for decades, and to inform design of products we’ve never made before.
  • Boost our Agility: Help us adapt faster to changes in market conditions or behavior.
  • Make our Party Smarter: Work with our design and sales teams to identify key holes in our understanding, conduct impactful studies, and communicate actionable insights.

More here.

What should I ask Matthew Ball?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is some background:

Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse! You hear it everywhere. It’s mainstream, it’s a trendy buzzword, it’s even corporate strategy du jour.

But that wasn’t the case in early 2018. And this is when Matthew Ball, a former head of strategy at Amazon Studios, began writing a series of metaverse-themed essays – long, lucid, influential essays – that are almost uncanny in their prescience.

Matthew is now a venture capitalist as well and he has a forthcoming and already much-discussed book The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything.  Here is his home page and here is Matthew on Twitter.  So what should I ask him?

Optimism about the threat of nuclear war

From an email from Trey Howard, I won’t impose further double-indent on it:

“I recently came across the pessimistic Edward Luce column you retweeted, and wanted to offer some trends that I think point in the opposite direction. I offer these as someone who was much more worried about nuclear war in the first 2 weeks of the war, before the factors below became apparent.

  1. Putin has been willing to revise his objectives. The Russian army fell back from Kyiv, did not launch an amphibious assault on Odessa, and has not attempted to storm the Azovstal steelworks. All of these indicate that Putin is receiving some objective information about the poor performance of his military, and is revising his plans accordingly.
  2. Putin’s objectives are amorphous. What does it mean to de-nazify Ukraine? What does control of “the Donbass” mean exactly? These kinds of objectives are susceptible to BS-ing for the domestic audience. They are not like “Kill Zelensky” or “Capture Kyiv”. They permit Putin an off-ramp at any time he wants to declare victory.
  3. NATO is unwilling to intervene directly. If anything, I have heard less chatter about no fly zones since the first two weeks of the war.
  4. Putin has not escalated to chemical weapons, despite having an opportunity to use them effectively on the Azovstal works.
  5. NATO has limited the supply of weapons to short range weapons that a) do not require a complex supply chain of trainers and contractors close to Ukraine or b) are unlikely to cause mass casualties in Russia itself (airplanes, tactical ballistic missiles). This seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For all the breathless talk of “heavy weapons” being shipped to Ukraine, it is hard for me to imagine that Russia sees T-72 tanks, towed howitzers, or M113 personnel carriers from the 1970s as tilting the balance. They have thousands of comparable weapons in storage.
  6. Russia has not attempted to interdict the flow of weapons inside NATO countries. Not even “plausibly deniable” things like train derailments or warehouse fires. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the GRU committed attacks in NATO countries in the years before the war started.
  7. Putin is not threatened at home. If anything, support for the invasion seems to have increased. The Russian economy has not collapsed as some predicted, and this will bolster support for him.
  8. Russia continues to make payments on its foreign debt. To me this indicates a long-term outlook and is not the kind of thing one would do if contemplating murder-suicide at a national level.
  9. Russia has not increased the readiness of its strategic nuclear forces (like putting SSBNs to sea).
  10. Russia is actively recruiting foreign mercenaries and seems likely to order a general mobilization soon. Some people see this as a sign of escalation, but I think it is more likely that Putin realizes that he needs more bodies to garrison captured territory. Additional conscripts will eventually allow some of the BTGs in action to rotate away from the front lines. It will increase his perception that time is on his side. More troops will make it less likely that Ukraine can inflict a decisive defeat on Russian forces in the Donbass (which might really precipitate tactical nuclear weapon use).
  11. Russia is taking over administration of infrastructure in captured territory, and is preparing residents to switch to the ruble. These are long-term thinking measures consistent with a power planning to occupy and administer new territory (which they would not want to irradiate).
  12. Putin thinks that the political winds are on his side. Viktor Orban being re-elected, Le Pen performing better than her prior showing, and the coming midterms in the USA all point to populations becoming impatient at the high inflation and constant drumbeat of scary news coming out of Ukraine. Of course, the biggest break for him would be Trump 2024…

I disregard all public statements from Russia (whether from state TV, Putin himself, or lesser officials). There is never going to be a situation where the Russians say “relax, we aren’t going to use the nukes”. They want to keep us guessing. I look at the trends above instead.

Many of these trends are bad news for Ukraine and the west in general, but they are factors that make nuclear war less likely. As you said on a recent podcast “things are never as bad or as good as you might think.””

TC again: That’s it, have a cheery day!

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence must evolve

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, about 3x the normal length.  Here is one excerpt:

From the vantage point of 2022, it is clear that the norms doctrine, while it served useful functions for decades — just as did the MAD doctrine — has its limitations. The most obvious is that norms tend to weaken and eventually collapse.

Once the use of nuclear weapons became classified as “unthinkable,” political actors tried to extend that designation to other kinds of weapons. In doing so, they weakened the concept of unthinkability. The broader category of “weapons of mass destruction,” for example, was also supposed to be unthinkable. Yet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This led some countries to support Iran, but Saddam remained in power until former President George W. Bush led the war against Iraq roughly two decades later.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin that they should agree that chemical weapons should not be deployed in Syria, as that would constitute a “red line.” Syria went ahead and used them, and there was no major kinetic U.S. military response, thereby erasing that red line and possibly others.

The pattern is evident: Once the category of “unthinkable” weapons is created, it is expanded so much that it loses its credibility. Politicians tend to spend down the reputational capital that their predecessors build up.

And:

Another problem with the norms doctrine is that, sooner or later, there is value in breaking a norm — precisely because the norm was successful.

Think back to your high school. Your teachers probably set up behavioral norms that most everyone followed. That left room for a rebel who dared to defy those norms, if only for attention and to signal non-conformity.

With nuclear weapons, it’s not as if Putin or some other political “rebel” would use a bomb to make a point or to seem cool. Rather, Putin has been finding it useful to threaten the West and NATO with possible nuclear weapons use. If enough scary threats are issued, the use of nuclear weapons no longer seems unthinkable. And as the unthinkability norm erodes, eventually someone — Putin or not — may use nukes.

Finally, as mentioned above, the norms doctrine assumed the major nuclear powers all had a stake in a status quo…

Cameo by Thomas Schelling!

Solve for the wartime presentation equilibrium

Ukrainian officials have run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russian soldiers in the 50 days since Moscow’s invasion began, using the scans to identify bodies and contact hundreds of their families in what may be one of the most gruesome applications of the technology to date.

The country’s IT Army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists that takes its direction from the Ukrainian government, says it has used those identifications to inform the families of the deaths of 582 Russians, including by sending them photos of the abandoned corpses.

The Ukrainians champion the use of face-scanning software from the U.S. tech firm Clearview AI as a brutal but effective way to stir up dissent inside Russia, discourage other fighters and hasten an end to a devastating war.

Here is the full story.  Maybe this feels gruesome, but I am not sure we should let ourselves be led by the nose of our intuitions here.  Furthermore, we have zero information on its effectiveness, or lack thereof.  So I am not ready to have an opinion on this practice.  We all seem fine with the idea of killing, so squeamishness on the “presentation side” probably is undertheorized.

I am more interested in what the next step looks like.  If this stands a chance of being effective, how might you try to “improve” the presentation?  Record death screams and send them in audio files?  A virtual reality version?  A “director’s cut” for the more committed audience members?

How about AI that scans the battlefield for fights your preferred side seems to be winning?  Then do face scans of the opposing soldiers and using internet, text, or phone calls, invite their relatives to watch the struggle.  Wouldn’t a fair number of family members click on that link?

Might some people crowdsource funding for extra footage, or shoot it themselves?  I read this (New Yorker) report about the recent Brooklyn terror attack:

Many [bystanders] also responded as no one should ever do in an active-shooter scenario—when presented with an escape route, they instead stopped to record videos.

A yet more advanced version of the footage could throw in deep fakes of some kind?  CGI?

Do you find this all more repulsive yet?  Ever watched a war movie?  We seem to accept those in full stride.  It would be weird — but perhaps a coherent view nonetheless — to think “killing fine, phony movie of killing fine, movie of real killing just terrible.”

What do you all think?

For the initial pointer I thank Maxwell.

Under-signaling

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Biden administration would be prepared to use all its sanctions tools against China if Beijing moved aggressively toward Taiwan.

“I believe we’ve shown we can” impose significant pain on aggressive countries, as evidenced by sanctions against Russia, Yellen told lawmakers Wednesday as she testified before the House Financial Services Committee. “I think you should not doubt our ability and resolve to do the same in other situations.”

Here is the full Bloomberg story.  If I were Xi Jinping, I would be heartened and encouraged by that ultimately rather lukewarm threat.

The game theory of attacking nuclear power plants

From my latest Bloomberg column (do I really need to indent my own text?):

“Putin would like to find a way of making nuclear threats without quite incurring the liability from … making nuclear threats.

Enter nuclear power plants. When Russian forces attack the plant, there is some chance that something goes wrong, such as a radiation spill. But more likely than not, the plant will hold up, and most dangerous processes can be shut down and the very worst outcomes avoided. You can think of Putin as choosing a “nuclear radiation deployment” with only some small probability.

Why might he do this? Well, he is showing that the use of broader nuclear deployments is not out of the question. He is also showing that he is willing to take a huge risk.

Most of all, he doesn’t much have to fear retaliation. The Western powers cannot know if these nuclear attacks are deliberate strategy or simply an accident of tactics in the field, and so — if only for that reason — they will not respond with a major escalation. If Russian forces moved on Estonia, they might be courting a very serious NATO response. But not in this situation.

You don’t have to believe that Putin sat in his lair rubbing his hands as he dreamed up this diabolical strategy. It’s also possible that the attack on the nuclear power plant started by mistake, or was ordered by lower-level commanders. Putin then simply allowed it to continue, perhaps out of a general love of chaos. At the very least, he did not consider it a priority to stop the attack.

Game theory doesn’t always have to be about explicit plans and intentions. It also can help explain why “invisible hand” mechanisms lead people to a particular point in the strategy tree, as if they had those strategies as conscious intentions.

Attacking the nuclear power plant also illuminates some other parts of game theory. Ukraine and its people are taking very heavy losses and are hoping for NATO to intervene on their behalf. If the conflict seems riskier to all of Europe, and not just Ukraine, the odds of such intervention improve.

In this sense, the attack on the nuclear power plant does not have to be entirely bad for Ukrainian prospects in the war. The Ukrainian leadership is rightly horrified by this attack, due to the risks for Ukrainian citizens. But the attack could also mobilize European public opinion on behalf of military intervention for Ukraine. If the war greatly increases chances for the spread of dangerous nuclear radiation, then the likelihood that Germany, France, Turkey and other nations will intervene also greatly increases.

Notice, however, that the Russian position here may be sounder than it at first appears. European citizens care more about radiation in Ukraine than do American citizens, for reasons of simple proximity. Putin may realize he can put Europeans at greater risk so long as he doesn’t provoke an intervention from the U.S. military, which would probably be decisive. It is a risky strategy that he might just get away with.

If you are the Ukrainian government, your incentive is to make the nuclear power plant attack sound as risky and precarious as possible. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done exactly that.”

I am sorry to say that the column does not have an especially optimistic ending.

Norway Chess cancels Alexander Grischuk

He is kicked out of a forthcoming tournament, even though he has been critical of the war in Ukraine.  In case you haven’t already guessed, Grischuk is Russian in his citizenship.  This stuff never stays very accurate or fair.

Here is more on Grischuk and other Russian players, a grim and deeply unfair story (in German, covers Nepo, Svidler, Dubov, others who have spoken out).  To be clear, I am strongly in support of pulling all tournaments from Russia and Belarus, as FIDE has done.  It is targeting the individuals that I object to.

Elsewhere, from an email:

The editors of the “Studies in the History of Philosophy” have decided not to pursue the project of publishing a thematic issue devoted to Russian religious philosophy.

Russian cats are now cancelled too.

I would say this: if you are working in the United States and are from Russia, your chance of a big promotion just went way down, no matter what your political views.  They are not going to make Chekhov Captain of the Enterprise, not now at least.

As for the oligarchs, I am all in favor of initiating court cases against Russian law breakers, whether in domestic courts or at The Hague.  And if those individuals are found guilty, and the process generates yacht seizure as the appropriate remedy, bring it on.  But just taking the yachts without true due process?  Nein, Danke.